Hit the ground running: Dungeons of Dredmor and roguelike design

by berv

Dungeons of Dredmor: a fairly standard roguelike dungeon crawler, built on familiar structures and subject to the same high points as well as the same pitfalls  as others in its genre.

As is standard in such games, the gameplay is highly unforgiving, requiring you to be constantly alert or risk the end of your character and start over again from square one. This can be rewarding, as the high stakes can require the player use every asset at his disposal to escape a uniquely dangerous situation. However, the flipside is that in the situations that are either not unique, not dangerous, or neither of the two, you are essentially forced to run through a self-programmed set of actions to overcome them. Use power, hit twice, use other power, fire crossbow, repeat. The moments when you are forced to innovate are the golden core of the roguelike experience, but are unfortunately too few and far between to justify the time cost.

As a result, whenever I am partway through a run, I fatigue very quickly. I’ve specced my character to do one thing really well and that’s what he’ll do until his inevitable death. Monsters either hit you or shoot you and more loot is just better loot; it doesn’t change your playstyle as  you’ve essentially determined that through your character build. If you pick swords as one of your seven starting skills, you’re not going to switch to maces halfway through. You can’t, unless you want to get your head caved as you fumble to find which end you’re supposed be holding on to.

Yet, a day or two after every death, I start thinking about character design and return to bash my head against the dungeon floor once again. Why is that?
Once again I’ve been drawn in by the Siren’s song of possibility. At the game’s outset, you choose 7 skills from a selection of 34, which will be the seven skill trees you’ll have the opportunity to level up over the course of that run. There’s quite a wide variety represented and choosing your skills without an eye towards synergy will more often than not result in a swift death for your hero. And this is what brings me back. After every time I’ve sworn the game off as an unrewarding timesink, I start thinking about different skill combinations that might have better served my hapless adventurer, providing more options or a different play style… and I return to the game to try them out. Here’s the problem, though: essentially all of the big decision-making comes at the beginning of the game. After I’ve chosen my skills with some consideration given to the order in which I’ll level them up, I’m just running the program. Sure, those moments of unique challenge come up, but they’re typically an hour or two in and nine times out of ten end with the death of my character.

I think the key to my enjoyment of permadeath/roguelike games is a fast start of sorts: make a plan, jump straight into the meaty parts, and see how things shake out. The bite-sized nature of Desktop Dungeons really satisfied me as I could run a number of builds through the gauntlet in a short amount of time. Each run thoughtfully omitted the “then he killed 100 slimes and walked for twenty minutes to get back to that one shop with the good axe” section, providing instead a continuous stream of meaningful decisions. I also really enjoyed the Doom roguelike, as there was never a moment when I felt at ease or like I was grinding through a horde of easily-bested baddies.  I imagine it’s a difficult balance to strike, lining up a gradual escalation in difficulty without being patently unfair to the player, so I heartily applaud those who seem to have found balance on that narrow wire.

Dredmor: It’s not that it takes too long, it’s that I have to spend too much time doing things that don’t matter.